June 25, 2017,
being the preacher's last Sunday before retirement.
I’ve called today’s sermon, “The Last Word.” Though I suppose it won't probably be the actual last time I ever preach, yet it certainly is my last time to preach as a pastor under full-time appointment. And I have no other commitments or invitations lined up to preach anywhere else, so, who knows? In any case, it seems to be a good time to look back and take stock over forty-one years of preaching and pastoring.
I don’t talk much about the experience of the ordained ministry, since I’m not preaching to fellow clergy on Sundays, and the kinds of things we clergy think about and discuss among ourselves are not “addressed to your condition,” as the saying goes. Still, if you will indulge me . . .
Years ago, some old lady came up to me on a Sunday and said, “I don’t like the way you preach.” I said, “Yeah, why’s that?” She said, “Everythin’ sounds like it’s comin’ off the top o’ yer head.” “Well thank you,” I replied. “You don’t know how many hours it takes to make it sound like it’s coming off the top of my head.”
The thing about preaching is, much of what needs to be said is hard to say. It can be hard to hear, too. So we preachers labor over it. It consumes us. We are always writing sermons in our heads, or turning experiencess and observations into sermon illustrations and filing them away.
Not but what some preachers waste their opportunities in the pulpit . . . I have a clergy friend who went on vacation to Ireland this month. When he reached Limerick, he posted that fact on FaceBook. So in honor of the occasion, I wrote him -- a limerick. I said,
There once was a broken-down pastorThey used to give retiring pastors a chance to say a few words in farewell at Annual Conference. They don’t do that anymore. (It’s too dangerous.) I had planned, when it was finally my turn at the mic, to sing them a new verse of the old Woodbadge song:
Who thought he could write sermons faster
If he simply told folks some corny old jokes,
And his preaching was just a disaster.
Oh, I used to be a preacher, and a good old preacher, too,then then see how many clergy Scouters would stand up and sing,
but now I’m thru with preaching, I don’t know what to do.
I’m growing old and feeble, and I can preach no more,
so I’m gonna work my ticket if I can,
Back to Gilwell, happy land!because that's what they do, you know.
I'm gonna work my ticket if I can!
“Working your ticket” refers to getting to where you need to be, to where you want to end up, instead of being stranded on the other side of the world when you’re discharged from the service of the Queen. So, where do you want to be? When have you arrived there? After as many years in the pulpit as Moses spent in the wilderness, what does it all come to? What did you accomplish? Was it worth it?
All of us pastors wrestle with this, throughout our careers. Am I doing the stuff that matters, or am I stuck in the weeds? Am I making a difference? Is it enough? Sadly, for some people in the pews, it’s never enough.
I once tried to explain in a blog post what being a pastor is like. Back before cell phones, we had phones on one’s desk. Important people might have more than one phone on their desks, so they could have faster communication with the people they worked with. So, imagine you have a desk with thirty phones on it. Your job is to answer the phones and deal with whatever the callers bring to your attention. Some of them bring desperately important matters to you. Some of them only want to listen to the sound of their own voices. You can’t know who is calling, or whether it’s important, until you pick up the phone.
Then the phones start ringing. Sometimes, there’s enough time between one ring and the next that you can deal completely with someone’s need. But frequently, other phones will ring while you’re on another line; indeed, most of the time, there are more phones ringing than you can answer, no matter how fast you try to deal with the calls. And there are always phones that stop ringing before you can get to them: those are the ones that haunt you. And it bothers you that you don’t hear from So-and-so any more, even as Sister Nobody-does-it-right pours her complaints into your ear. The simple fact is, the job is impossible. It can’t be done. Yet at the end of the day, you’re expected to say what you’ve accomplished.
So, we clergy go to leadership seminars, and follow what the celebrity pastors are doing. And people are always pushing us to define success by how many members we have, how many people attend, what institutions we’ve built, what programs we’ve started, what books we’ve published, what offices and responsibilities we’ve attained to. And we think: is that success? Will it be enough if and when I’ve done all that? And what if I can’t? We search for validation as if we were consulting the Brazen Head.
The Brazen Head is a device from an old play – a farce – in which some guys have got hold of an ancient oracle – a brass face that hangs on the wall, but which will answer any question or explain any mystery when it awakens. But it only awakens once every Century, or when the planets line up a certain way, or something.
It hangs on the wall at the back of the stage set, and the characters in the play make sure never to leave it alone, for it is almost due to speak, and they want to be there to acquire the secret knowledge that only it possesses. But they get busy, and as the action of the play moves faster and faster, and there comes a time when nobody is onstage. And it is just at that moment, when nobody is onstage, that the Brazen Head’s eyes open! (to the shock of the audience, who have gotten used to it just hanging there, doing nothing). And it says,
“Time is!and then goes back to sleep for another Century or so, and the characters in the play have missed their opportunity to have their questions answered.
"Time is past,”
In the frantic pursuit of all the things the pastorate throws at us, we clergy are also likely to miss out on any such secret wisdom. So, if we’re going to figure out what it all amounts to, we’re going to have to find something else to tell us besides some brass tchotchke or institutional guru. Toward that end, I have always reminded myself of just a few fundamental things.
First, I remember the most important fact of all my life: I remember my relationship with God through Christ. I was eleven years old when my parents stomped out of the Spencer Methodist Church (literally). I was just at the point where somebody might have told me what it was all about and invited me to believe and belong. And I’ve noticed that adults who get crossways with the church or get tired of church or busy with other stuff always assume that they can get back to it later – but it’s their children who miss out on important things when they do that.
So I became a church orphan. Oh, the people of the church - and the pastor – came asking Ward and Margaret Collins to come back. Their friends and youth counselors sought my older sisters’ participation. But nobody ever came looking for me. Nobody ever asked me to take part in a confirmation class, or go to church camp, or be part of a youth group. I drifted through the next few years like a ghost, surrounded by church-going friends. We talked religion now and then, but none of them ever invited me to church.
A new friend I met my first semester of college told me about Jesus, and how he reconciled sinful human beings to a holy God, and he told me how to ask Jesus to be my Savior and Lord. So one night, alone in my dorm room, I surrendered my life to Christ, and promised that I would follow him for the rest of my days – though I had no one to show me how. But one great thing I had, one great thing I knew: I belonged to Jesus, and Jesus belonged to me. I wasn’t just so much unclaimed freight gathering cobwebs in some cosmic train station; and you who have some time felt that way will know exactly what I’m describing.
Well, I fell in love and got married, still in college, and shortly after that, a lightning bolt experience of God’s call came to me, and I began to inquire after a way of serving him as a career. This eventually led me to seminary and into the United Methodist clergy, much to everyone’s surprise – including my own.
I had no experience of the church. I had no spiritual formation. Nobody ever discipled me. I barely knew what church people did. Yet, at age 22, they gave me three little churches, and I was their pastor. So, I taught them about Jesus. And I offered myself to them, to give them the invitation I never got. To show them, by experience, what it felt like to be asked. To be invited. To be wanted. I certainly wanted them: I wanted them all to believe and belong.
And I discovered an amazing thing: there were all these people I kept seeing, with the same hunger in their hearts that I had known, and I reached out to them. Some responded; others, not. But what bewildered me was that so many church people couldn’t see them: they were invisible to them!
"Where are all these people you say want to be part of our church?" they asked – and still ask. But then, they were never orphaned. They had always belonged. And they couldn’t see the people I saw, nor would they open their arms to them and invite them in.
Who is the church for? Is it for the people who already belong, or the people who ought to belong? Answer that question, and it will tell you everything of importance about your congregation’s ministry. I have faithfully served the church and the people thereof – but I have always known that there were lots of people that Jesus wanted me to talk to who aren’t to be found there. And you’ve got to go out there in order to invite people in here. Some of my parishioners have not always been happy with how and with whom I have spent my time; but then, I’m not accountable to them. I answer to another. And so it comes down to a matter of judgment: The Judgment. What will you say to God, when he demands an accounting of your life?
All of us will be raised at the last day, and face a double judgment. First, for the honor of God, there will be a judgment of deeds. Every good deed will be noted and praised, and every bad deed will be noted and condemned. God will do this to demonstrate his justice, not ours; for none of us can hope to stand if our good deeds are to be weighed against our evil ones.
Only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life – only those who are depending on Jesus to stand in their place and be judged according to his worth rather than their own, shall stand. It’s not about how good we are or have been; it’s about how good he is and has been – and ever will be. That is the good news.
So, we will be judged by our works – and found wanting. Then, we will be judged by our faith – and those who trust in Jesus shall receive Jesus’s reward. Oh, but for those of us whom he called to share in his ministry – to represent him behind the pulpit, at the table and at the font, to be his voice to guide his sheep – for us, there will be a third judgment.
"Do not many of you seek to be teachers," says the Apostle James, "for we shall be judged more strictly than other men." And this is what we shall be judged on: We shall be asked, “What have you done with the gift I gave you? What have you done with my call, with the power bestowed on you by the Holy Spirit, with the authority given you by the Church when they laid hands on your head and said, Take thou authority to preach the Word of God and administer the holy sacraments in the congregation? That is the question that must be answered, and that is the same question we all wrestle with over the course of our careers. And how shall we answer?
I know how I will answer. Do you see these banners? Some years ago, I started having my confirmation classes make class banners with their names on them. These names represent not only themselves, but all the people - young and old, whether they came as a class or as a family or by themselves - who have found the path to the kingdom (or returned to it) because I was there to invite them to.
Oh, no doubt many of them would have made that choice anyway, whether I was there or not – but for some, maybe not. For some, it was only by the grace of God that they and I met at just the right time that they started on the path, surrendered their lives to Jesus, and discovered what it felt like to believe and belong at last. And there are some I couldn’t get all the way in, but I made a start. I showed them what faith in Christ could be, even if they didn’t, right then, profess that faith. I have to hope that others will come along and reap what I have sown.
In any case, this is what I have done with my life. I have gone about, finding people to invite to follow Jesus, as I long ago turned to follow Jesus. This is far more important than trying to keep people happy, or refereeing church squabbles, or building institutions, or climbing the ladder of success.
All those things are of this world, and will perish with this world. We are to build for eternity. And if the first goal of every person is to see to the salvation of their own souls, to make sure that they make it to that bright kingdom, then the only other thing that ultimately matters is the people who make the journey with you --for only persons can enter the kingdom.
John Wesley told his preachers, “You have nothing to do but save souls.” And so, I turn to the words of prophecy, here in the Letter to the Hebrews applied to the Christ himself, and lo: I see their applicability to those of us who are called to represent Christ in his Church.
For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying,This is the answer I will give to God – not in justification of my soul, for only Christ can justify me; I have nothing to offer for that, it’s all his doing. All I can say is, "I’m coming, Lord; unworthy though I be, by your grace, I’m coming." But in answer to that other question, “What have you done with the gift of my call, Arthur?” to that, I can say, “I’m coming, Lord, but hallelujah, I’m not coming alone.""I will proclaim thy name to my brethren,And again,
in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee.""I will put my trust in him."And again,"Here am I, and the children God has given me."
Here am I, and the children thou hast given me. Some may have gathered more than I, and some less. Doesn’t matter. We’re not keeping score. The only question is, did you gather any? Did God get some return on his investment in you? Well, tell everybody in that bright kingdom that I’m coming. And I’m not coming alone. God’s faith in me has not been misplaced.
This is what I have done with my life. And if I never preach again, from any pulpit, it is enough. I have not been found unprofitable to my Lord, to whom be glory and honor for ever and ever. This is all any preacher can say, or hope to say. And it is not so much my Last Word to you, but the Last Word I hope to hear pronounced on my call by him who gave it.
Blessed be his name for ever. Amen.